Thursday, August 12, 2010

First Audition for Heifetz (Ch9 Pt.1)

My mother had viewed several episodes of The Heifetz Masterclass on national public television in the 60's. The legendary violinist was filmed live in session with his pupils at the Clark House on the premises of University of Southern California. Before the documentaries were aired, little was known about Jascha Heifetz, the pedagogue. How did he relate to students? What teaching methods, if any, did he use? Heifetz, the performing artist, was sometimes perceived by the public as being cold and aloof. What was he like as a mentor?

"A masterclass is such a useful idea," my mother said, as we walked towards Clark House, located off West Adams in Los Angeles. Her heels clicked against the pavement with every determined step. "Students learn not only from the master, but from one another—clever."
I felt a twinge of anxiety, but not the dread of stage fright, as I often did before playing concerts.
"When you audition for Jascha Heifetz, give it your all."
"I will."
"Don't be shy."
"I won't."
"Show him how appreciative—"
"I get it, Mom."
"Thirteen year olds," my mother said, exasperated. "You think you know everything. But if the professor corrects you, say thank you. Always be grateful for constructive criticism. That's how you better yourself." 

Inside Clark House, a spacious Victorian mansion, we were greeted by Mrs. Reynolds, Heifetz's secretary. She led us upstairs to the famous studio, and explained to my mother that Jascha Heifetz forbid parents to attend classes and auditions. He had been barraged with requests through the years by pushy parents to promote their offspring, and he adamantly refused to have anything to do with them. My mother appeared to understand, as she nodded in compliance, but I could read the disappointment on her face.
I stepped into the commodious room, lined with chairs against the wall. I slowly unpacked my violin and rosined my bow. After a few moments of warming up, Mrs. Reynolds opened the door.
In she walked with Jascha Heifetz. He looked older than I had imagined, but the artist was, after all, in his seventies.
"This is Marjorie Kransberg, Mr. Heifetz. She's thirteen years old."
"Hello," said Heifetz, as he strode to his desk in the center of the room.
"The essay?"
"It is here," said Mrs. Reynolds, pointing to the lined notebook paper on top of a neat pile.
"Thank you."
And she left.
"What brings you here?"asked Mr. Heifetz.
I stared at him, in awe. I had studied his face on record jackets and books, right down to the bags under his eyes.
"What can I do for you?"
 "Well—I'd like to—to play for you."

Jascha Heifetz glanced over my essay, a requirement for an audition with him. I felt pangs of guilt for having copied my mother's words in my own hand. But with her incessant demand for perfection, she had left me little choice. I was supposed to have written about my previous history, and my musical goals.
"You played a concert recently—it says here."
"Yes." I flicked my long brown hair away from my face. The room felt increasingly warm.
"Well, how did it go?" He looked up. His icy blue eyes cast a penetrating gaze.

"Um. Fine, I guess." In spite of a burst of adrenalin, and frustration with Mr. Müller's beat, the Tri-State Music Festival concert had been declared a success. More solo engagements and invitations were to follow. "The audience liked my playing," I said.
"Is that so?"
 "How do you know?"
"Well, they stood up."
 Heifetz narrowed his eyes, and studied my face.
"Were they in a hurry to leave?"
His voice remained calm, though his words stung.
"Did you ever think, perhaps, your audience was just plain relieved that your performance had ended?"
I giggled uncomfortably. A silence ensued.
"Maybe they were grateful it was over—your playing, that is."
 "I hadn't thought of that," I muttered.
"Or perhaps, the listeners needed to stretch their legs. That can happen, too. You didn't think about that, did you?"

I was taken aback. But then, even though I was young, I recognized that Heifetz's comments were meant to plummet me back to earth; a child performer could easily suffer from a swelled head after receiving adulation from both public and press. I was to learn years later, that Heifetz had a keen sense for people. He could sniff conceit and insincerity, and put those who suffered from such maladies in their proper places, at once, with words as weapons.

Mr. Heifetz lifted my essay again from his desk, and put on his reading glasses. "Do you recognize this hand-writing?"
I nodded. He pursued the interrogation.
"This paper belonged to you?"
"You write something about a bow—grip." And he repeated the word grip with obvious displeasure. "What's the problem? Are you confused?"
"I don't know. I mean, I guess."
Awkward silence.
"I'm not sure if I hold the bow correctly," I blurted, finally.
I felt like an idiot. My mother included a query about right hand technique. The violinist's supple bow arm is to a violinist as breath control to a singer. And she recognized that, though the Galamian approach had its own aesthetic appeal, the disciples of Leopold Auer from the Russian school of violin playing, such as Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman, had a vastly superior sound, style and virtuosity. Mother and daughter were both confused on this subject.

"What have you been doing all these years?"
I paused. "What do you mean?"
"Do you hold the bow or not?"
"I do, yes, of course."
"With your fingers?"
I nodded.
"Because you could attempt holding it with your toes. Have you tried that?"
I fumbled for an answer.

"So. What would you like to play? Assuming, of course, that you can figure out how to hold onto your bow."
"I—I would like to play the 'Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso' by Camille Saint-Saëns."
He drummed his fingers on the desk with an expression of boredom.
"I'd like to hear the Mendelssohn Concerto in E Minor, final movement."

 I wiped my hands on my tight-waisted, navy blue skirt, and took a deep breath. I hadn't yet learned the Mendelssohn. I loved the piece, though, especially the Heifetz rendition. I had practically worn out the LP by playing it over and over again on the Hi-Fi. And I had viewed the film, "They Shall Have Music" with my parents. Heifetz had made a rare cameo appearance in that movie, performing both the Saint-Saëns and the Mendelssohn with a youth orchestra. I shed tears as I followed the plight of a little boy who had run away from home, and ended up at a music school for poor children. When the school suffered hard times, and faced possible closure, the boy enlisted the aid of Heifetz. The violinist performed a benefit concert, saved the school, and was a hero.

"Hello?" Heifetz leaned forward at his desk. "Anybody there?"
"I'm sorry. I haven't learned the Mendelssohn," I said. "My teacher at Juilliard says it's too difficult."
"Well, have you heard it?"
"Y-Yes. Many times."
 I'd never admit that when I listened to Jascha Heifetz on any recording, I pretended it was me playing. Now, in front of the legendary violinist, I was suddenly at a loss, not only for words and confidence, but the most important ingredient of all—the notes.  
"It's settled," Heifetz said. "Mendelssohn Concerto—Finale."
He picked up a metal stick—was it a TV antennae?— and tapped it against the desk.
"I'll try to play it," I said.
"Don't try, just do it."